Documents from the Continental Congress and the Constitutional Convention, 1774-1789


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To Form a More Perfect Union


Between 1774 and 1789, 13 colonies became a nation - the United States of America. In 1774, Great Britain's North American colonies first came together to defend themselves against wrongs committed by their "mother country." By 1789, these colonies had become independent states, joined by a new federal constitution into a single nation.

Assembling representatives from every colony, the Continental Congress (1774-1789) began as a coordinated effort to resist the British. With the outbreak of the Revolutionary War, the Congress became the central institution for managing the struggle for American independence.

Independence raised new issues. How could thirteen separate self-governed states unite? What form would that union take? The Articles of Confederation (1781-1789) were America's first attempt to govern itself as an independent nation. They united the states as a confederation - a loose league of states represented in a Congress.

In 1783, with the war formally drawing to a close, the Congress faced a wider range of issues: the disbanding of the Continental Army, the large debts owed by each state, foreign debts owed by the Confederation, the governing of territories won from the British, and the establishment of formal relationships with foreign countries.

Despite the Congress's continued efforts to improve its effectiveness, many Americans saw the need for a more powerful central authority; the Congress as defined by the Articles of Confederation was too weak to make the states obey congressional mandates. Anxious for change, in 1786, leading statesmen called for a special convention to revise the Articles -- the Constitutional Convention.

The Constitutional Convention of 1787 proposed a new constitution establishing a much stronger national government. Although this controversial new Constitution provoked a great deal of resistance, it was eventually ratified by the necessary number of states, replacing the Articles of Confederation as the framework of the United States government.

Debate and compromise, controversy and tedious detail, foreign affairs and domestic problems, are all included in the 267 documents of the Continental Congress and Constitutional Convention Broadside Collections. Including public announcements of congressional actions, drafts of legislation, committee reports, and final versions of legislation or treaties, these broadsides illustrate the evolution of a government, from a legislative body called together in the crisis of war, to an intricate system of checks and balances. These documents show the birth of the American nation.


Painting of the signing of the U.S. Declaration of Independence
descriptive record icon enlarge image icon Declaration of Independence. Painting by John Trumbull (1756-1843) photographed by Theodor Horydczak ca.1920-1950. Theodor Horydczak Collection, Prints and Photographs Division. Reproduction Number: LC-H8-CT-C01-063.